About one of every six police departments is using body cameras to record the conduct of officers when they interact with the public, but more are joining the ranks now that federal funds are available to buy equipment.
In Richmond, the American Civil Liberties Union warns that guidelines for the use of body cameras are critical. Here’s director of the Virginia chapter - Claire Guthrie Gastenaga
“You know Virginia is all over the map. I mean the situation -- the word we use is chaotic.”
Departments had different rules for when to turn cameras on and whether officers had to tell suspects, witnesses or victims of crime that they are being recorded. Some were also unclear about the rules of taping inside a private residence without a warrant.
“We think they fail pretty miserably in terms of protecting the privacy issues of Virginians.”
Rules also varied on how long recordings would be kept and who would be allowed access to them. Gastenaga hopes the state will conduct public hearings and write laws to govern the use of body cameras.
“We think it’s very important that body cams not become tools of general surveillance, so that the police are walking around all the time taking pictures of the people gathered at the Bell Tower so they have a record of who was present at a First Amendment event. We also think it’s really important for victims and witnesses to crime to be able to be confidential, and certainly domestic violence victims are particularly sensitive about this. “
She says citizens should have the right to ask officers to turn the camera off.
“Policies need to tell the officers exactly when to turn the camera on and when to turn it off, because if they don’t, and it’s officer discretion, what you end up is with an officer potentially being able to turn the camera off and on in a way that essentially edits what happens in a way that serves the officer’s interest and not the public’s interest.”
And she fears that videos released to the public could be used by third parties to profit at the expense of someone’s privacy.
“One of the things that’s happening out there is people get these videos or pictures of you in certain circumstances, and they say we’re going to put it up on the web, and you have to pay us to take it down.”
In a report released Monday, the ACLU of Virginia says body cameras can serve the interests of the public and police only if proper policies are in place to guide their use, and Gastanaga urged the legislature to make those policies a matter of state law.